The Eternal Lover

Part II

Chapter VI

The Anthropoid Apes

Edgar Rice Burroughs

AS NAT-UL; surprised by Tur in her spying upon the village of the Boat Builders, fled north along the beach she had little hope of permanently distancing her pursuer. But she could do no less than flee, hoping against hope, that some chance accident might save her from capture.

It was in her mind to dodge into the jungle where it came down close to the water a quarter of a mile ahead of her. Here she might elude the man and reach the cliffs that lay a short distance inland. Once there, there was an excellent chance of hiding from him or holding him off with pieces of rock until nightfall. Then she would retrace her steps northward, for it was evident that her people had not traveled in this direction.

The jungle was already quite close, but, on the other hand, the man was gaining upon her. Could she reach the tangled screen in time to elude him before he should be upon her? At least she could do no less than try.

Suddenly from directly above her head came a loud flapping of great wings. A black shadow fell upon the sand about her. She glanced upward, and the sight that met her eyes froze her brave heart in terror. There, poised just above her ready to strike with its mighty talons, hovered one of those huge flying reptiles, that even in Nat-ul’s day were practically extinct—a gigantic pterodactyl.

The man behind her screamed a shout of warning. He launched his barbed spear for the great creature, catching it in the fatty portion of the long tail, near the body. With a whistling scream of pain and rage the hideous thing swooped down upon the girl beneath. Nat-ul felt the huge talons close upon her body. The heavy hide that covered her kept them from piercing through to her flesh as the pterodactyl rose swiftly, bearing her victim with her.

For a moment Nat-ul had battled and struggled for freedom, but almost at once she had realized the futility of her pitiful efforts. In that awful clutch even the cave bear or the bull bos would have been helpless. Now she hung inert and limp, waiting for the end. She could not even draw her stone knife, for one of the great talons was closed tightly over it where it rested in the cord that supported her loin cloth.

Below her she could see the tossing waters. The thing was bearing her far out from shore. The great wings flapped noisily above her. The long neck and the hideous head were stretched far forward as the creature flew in a straight line, high in air.

Presently the girl saw land ahead. Terror filled her heart as she realized that the thing was bearing her to the mysterious country that lay far out upon the bosom of the Restless Sea. She had dreamed of this strange, unattainable country. There were stories among her people of the awful creatures that dwelt within it. She had sometimes longed to visit it, but always with the brave warriors of her tribe to protect her. To come thus alone to the terrifying shore, in the clutches of the most fearsome beast that terrified primeval man was beyond conception. Her mind was partially stupefied by the enormity of the fate that had overwhelmed her.

Now the great reptile was above the nearest island. A jagged, rocky hill raised its bare summit in a huge index finger that pointed straight into the air far above the surrounding hill tops and the dense vegetation of the encircling jungle. Toward this the creature bore its prey. As it hovered above the rocky pinnacle Nat-ul glanced fearfully downward. Directly below her her horrified sight fell upon the goal toward which her captor had been winging its rapid way—upon the cruel and hideous fate that awaited her there.

Craning their long necks upward from a cup-like nest of mud matted grasses three young pterodactyls shrilled and hissed in anticipatory joy at their returning mother and the food she brought them.

Several times the adult circled above the young, dropping lower and lower toward the nest in a diminishing spiral. For a second she hovered almost at rest, a few feet above them. Then she loosed her hold upon Nat-ul, dropping her squarely amongst her wide-jawed progeny, and with a final wheel above them soared away in search of her own dinner.

As Nat-ul touched the nest three sets of sharp toothed jaws snapped at her simultaneously. The creatures were quite young, but for all of that they were formidable antagonists, with their many teeth, their sharp talons and their strong tails.

The girl dodged the first assault and drew her knife. Here was no time or place for hysteria or nerves. Death, unthinkably horrible, was upon her. Her chances of escape were practically non-existent, and yet, so strong is the instinct of self-preservation, Nat-ul battled as heroically as though safety depended upon a single lucky knife thrust.

And, though she knew it not, so it did. The three heads were close together as the three monsters sought greedily to devour the tender morsel brought to them by their parent. Nat-ul for a moment eluded the snapping jaws of the awkward young, and then as the three heads came together in a mad attempt to seize her she plunged her blade into two of the long, scraggy necks. Instantly the wounded creatures set up a chorus of whistling shrieks. Their minute brains told them only that they had been hurt, and with bestial fury they set upon one another, each attributing its pain to one of its fellows. Instantly the nest became a mad whirling of wings, tails and hideous jaws. The two that had been wounded set upon each other, and the third, ignoring Nat-ul, fell upon the two contestants with impartial fury.

Taking advantage of their distraction the girl clambered quickly over the side of the nest. Below her the sheer side of the lofty pinnacle dropped fearfully downward a hundred feet. Vertical crevices and slight protuberances of harder rocks that had withstood the ravages of time and the elements afforded the only means of descent. But death, certain and terrible, lay in the nest. Below, there was some hope, however slight.

Clinging to the outside of the nest Nat-ul lowered her body until her feet found a precarious foothold upon a slightly jutting surface of the spire-like needle. Slowly she lowered herself, clinging desperately to each crevice and outcropping. Time and time again it seemed that she must give up, and cling where she was until, exhausted, she toppled to the depth below. Twice she circled the rocky finger in search of a new foothold further down, and each time, when hope seemed hopeless, she had found some meager thing, once only a little rounded roughness, to which her hand or foot could cling a few inches further away from the awful nest above her.

And so at last she came to the base of the gigantic needle, but even here she could not rest. At any moment the mighty mother might return and snatch her back once more to the horrors of her slimy nest.

The descent of the lower summit was, in places, but little less hazardous than that of the surmounting spire; but finally it was accomplished and Nat-ul found herself in a broad ravine, densely wooded. Here she lay down upon the grass to rest, for her labors had exhausted her. She knew not what other dangers menaced her; but for the moment she was numb to further terror. Pillowing her head upon her arm she fell asleep.

About her were the million sounds of the jungle—the lesser animals, the birds, the insects, the swaying branches. They but lulled her to deeper slumber. The winds blowing up the ravine from the sea, fanned her cheek. It moved the soft, luxuriant hair that fell about her shoulders. It soothed and comforted her, but it did not whisper to her of the close-set, wicked eyes that peered out of the trees upon her. It did not warn her of the drooling jaws, the pendulous lower lip, the hairy breast beneath which a savage heart beat faster as the little eyes feasted upon her form. It did not tell her that a huge body had slipped from a nearby tree and was slinking toward her. It did not tell her; but a broken twig, snapping beneath the wary foot of the stalker, did.

Among the primordial there was no easy transition from sleep to wakefulness. There could not be for those who would survive. As the twig snapped Nat-ul was upon her feet facing the new danger that menaced her. She saw a great man-like form slinking toward her. She saw the reddish hair that covered the giant body. She saw the pig eyes and the wolf fangs, the hulking slouch of the heavy torso upon the short, crooked legs. And seeing, all in one swift glance, she turned and fled up the face of the cliff down which she had so recently descended.

As she clambered swiftly aloft the creature behind her rushed forward in pursuit, and behind him came a half dozen others like him. Nat-ul knew them as the hairy, tree people. They differed from the greater ape-folk in that they went always upon two legs when on the ground, and when they were killed and cut up for food they yielded one less rib than their apish prototype. She knew how terrible it was to fall into their hands—worse than the fate that had almost claimed her in the lofty nest, far above.

A hundred feet up the cliff side Nat-ul paused to look back. A dozen yards below her was the hairy one. The girl loosened a bit of rock and hurled it down upon him. He dodged it, and with a shrill scream continued the pursuit. Upward she fled for another hundred feet. Again she paused to look downward. The tree-man was gaining on her. She loosened a bit of quartz and dropped it upon him. Just below him were six others. The missile struck her foremost pursuer. He toppled for an instant, and then tumbled backward upon those behind him. He knocked one from a scant hand hold upon the precipitous cliff, and the two dashed violently downward toward the jagged rocks at the bottom.

With an exultant taunt upon her lips Nat-ul resumed her upward flight. Now she came to a point near the summit. The hillside was less steep. Here she could go with only occasional use of her hands. Half way up, her foot slipped upon a loose, round rock. She fell heavily to the ground, clutching for support as she did so. The few rocks that met her hands gave way beneath her weight. With sickening velocity she hurtled down toward the brink of the perpendicular cliff face-toward mangled, tortured death beside the bodies of the two who had preceded her to the same destruction.

Above the brink of the chasm the first of the remaining pursuers was emerging. He was directly in the path of Nat-ul’s swiftly rolling body. It struck him in his hairy breast, hurling him backward into the precipice, to his death. But his body had served a purpose. It had broken the velocity of the girl’s fall, so that now she but rolled gently over the edge of the cliff, clutching at the top as she went, and thus further diminishing her speed.

Directly below the summit lay a narrow ledge. Upon this Nat-ul came almost to a full stop, but there was nothing there upon which she could gain a handhold, and so she toppled slowly over the edge—into the arms of another of the man-apes.

Close beside him was one of his fellows, and a little way below the third who remained of the original six. The nearer clutched at Nat-ul to drag her from the arms of her captor, who drew back with bared fangs and menacing growl. But the other was insistent. Evidently he desired the prey fully as much as he who had obtained it. He came closer. The ledge upon which they stood was very narrow. A battle there would have meant death for all three.

With a cat-like leap the creature that held Nat-ul in his arms sprang to one side, turned, and with the strength and agility of a chamois leaped down the steep cliff-face. In his path was the remaining tree-man. To have met that charge would have meant being catapulted to the bottom of the ravine. Wisely, the man-ape side-stepped, but immediately the two had passed he fell into pursuit of them. Behind him came the other that Nat-ul’s captor had eluded.

There ensued a mad chase that often blanched the cheek of the almost fearless cave girl. From the base of the cliffs the man-ape leaped across the intervening jungle toward the trees. To the lower branches of these he took without lessening his speed in the least. He almost flew, so swiftly he passed through the tangled mazes of the primeval forest.

Close behind him, screaming and roaring came his two fellows, intent upon robbing him of his prey. He carried Nat-ul across one shoulder, gripping her firmly with a gigantic hand. She could plainly see the pursuers behind them. They were gaining on their burdened fellow. Already the foremost was reaching out to clutch the girl. Her captor shooting a quick glance rearward discovered the imminence of his despoilment. Wheeling suddenly upon the precarious trail he snapped viciously at the nearer pursuer, who, with bared fangs and growling horribly, retreated out of reach. Then the creature recommenced his flight only to be at once pursued again by his two kinsmen.

Up and down the jungle the savage trio raced. Twice they crossed the heights separating one ravine from another. More and more insistent became the pursuers. Oftener the captor was forced to halt with his prize and fight off first one of them and then the other. At last, at the edge of the jungle close to the mouth of a narrow, rocky gorge the beast went mad with rage. He wheeled suddenly upon his pursuers, hurled Nat-ul heavily to the ground, and charged, roaring and foaming, upon them.

They were running side by side, and so quick was the offensive movement of their fellow that they had no time to dodge him. His great hands seized them and then all three went to the earth, tearing at one another, burying their formidable tusks in throat and breast, and all the while keeping up a terrific growling and roaring.

Warily Nat-ul raised herself upon all fours. Her eyes were fastened intently upon the three savage beasts. They paid no attention to her. It was evident that their every faculty was wholly engaged in the life and death struggle upon which they had entered. Nat-ul came to her feet and without another backward glance fled into the narrow gorge behind her. She ran as swiftly as she could that she might put as great a distance as possible between herself and the horrid beasts that battled for her. Where the gorge led she had no conception. What other horrors lay at its end she could not guess. She only knew that hope had almost left her, for that she ever could regain the mainland she had not the faintest belief. Nor could her people succor her even should they discover her whereabouts, which in itself was equally beyond the pale of probability. That she could long survive the dangers of the mysterious country she doubted. Even a mighty warrior, fully armed, would fare ill in this place of terror. What, indeed, was to become of a girl armed only with a knife!

That Nu already was searching for her she did not doubt; but long ere this the tide had washed the imprints of her sandals from the sandy beach. Where would he search? And even had he followed her spoor before the tide had erased it how could he guess what had befallen her, or interpret the sudden ending of her trail in the center of the beach?

The stranger had seen the winged reptile pounce upon her and bear her away; but even if Nu should come upon him how could he learn of the truth, since the moment that the two met they would fall upon one another in mortal combat, as was the way of strangers then.

Or if, by any chance, Nu discovered that she had been carried to the mysterious country how could he follow, even though he believed, against all reason, that she still lived?

No, there seemed no hope anywhere upon Nat-ul’s horizon, or below it. There was nothing left for her but to battle for survival, pitting her wits and her agility against the brute force and cunning of the brutes that would menace her to the end of her days—the end that could not be far distant.

The windings of the gorge as she traversed it downward had shut off the louder sounds of the combat raging behind her, though still she could hear an occasional roar, or shriller scream of pain. She hoped that they would fight until all were dead. Otherwise the survivor would continue the pursuit.

As she stopped once to listen that she might know the three were still engaged in battle she turned her eyes backward up the gorge, so that, for the moment, she failed to see that she had reached the end of the narrow canyon and that the beach and the sea lay before her. Nor did she see the figure of the man who came to a sudden stop at the gorge’s mouth as his eyes fell upon her, nor the quick movement that took him behind a projecting boulder.

Satisfied that she was not as yet being pursued Nat-ul resumed her way down the rocky trail. As she turned she saw the sea, and, far away, the mainland across the water. She hurried onward toward the beach, that she might reach a point as close as possible to her beloved country.

As she passed the boulder behind which the man hid the scraping of a pebble beneath his sandal attracted her attention. She wheeled toward him and then turned to fly; but he was too close. Already he had leaped for her. One brawny hand closed in her flowing hair, the other grasped the wrist of the upraised hand in which the long knife of the girl had flashed above him with incredible swiftness.

He laughed in her face—it was the stranger who had pursued her upon the mainland beach—and then he drew her toward him. Nat-ul fought like a tigress, and once she screamed.

The Eternal Lover - Contents    |     Part II - Chapter VII - The Beast-Fires

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